Ojibwe history and the land


You can’t separate Ojibwe history from Ojibwe land. It would be like separating the skin on your hand from its bone. The two form one whole.

A thumbnail of pristine land jutting into Lake Superior, maybe 10 acres, makes up Wisconsin Point. If the land could speak, it would scream its head off.

That’s because for three generations, Wisconsin Point was the center of a heated battle between Fond du Lac Band Members and land and steel companies. A 1924 story in the Milwaukee Journal describes Frank Lemieux and other Band Members holding the land at gunpoint to prevent the building of ore loading docks.

The pictures on these pages show the outcome of that conflict. A Superior tourist plaque boasts that over a billion tons of ore had been shipped through the Burlington Northern Ore Docks. Why, 32.3 million tons were shipped in 1953 alone!

Late one sunny December afternoon the Indian Scout steered the Monster Truck north and east on Interstate 35 toward the big lake. From the Bong Bridge we passed massive grain elevators, empty warehouses and open pools of lake water. Now on the Wisconsin side, we zoomed to Hwy. 53 South from Belknap Street. A Chinese restaurant came into view, and a Perkins near Barker’s Island.

“What’s nice about the Wisconsin side is it isn’t overdeveloped, like Minnesota,” observed the Scout. We passed more giant elevators holding taconite, and a curious lack of fish houses in the bay areas. The ore docks dominated the environment, which ticked off the Scout. “That ore was a gift of the Ojibwe nation!” he snorted. “It was a gift from Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Nett Lake, and Leech Lake.” The Scout snorts a lot.

It may have been a gift, but it took three generations to grant. As the Scout mourned the lost mineral resources, a bald eagle circled broadly in the near western sky.

We stopped again near the elevated train platforms where deer tracks led to a gated entrance. This was Superior’s “Old Town,” and we took a side road toward Wisconsin Point.

Ahead a dump truck led the way. Who decided to put a dump site practically on Wisconsin Point, the Scout exclaimed, his voice rising. The Scout slipped into a new funk about ill-placed garbage.

We turned down a narrow built-up road surrounded by snowy wetland. Another tourist plaque reported that starting in 1666, and for 200 more years, explorers, fur traders, miners and missionaries came along the south shore of the lake in bark canoes. No mention was made of the earliest explorers who came through more than 12,000 years ago and settled into villages. No mention was made of the barrel of Frank Lemieux’s gun.

The Monster Truck stopped at a “Chippewa Indian Burial Ground Site” dating from the 17th Century. A sign stated that the remains were removed in 1918 to St. Francis Cemetery in Superior.

Yet it was clear that recent visitors stopped by the burial area. Over near a large marker stone the Scout noted a sprinkling of tobacco and added one of his own. I took a picture of ribbons attached to tree branches. Scout speculated that the orange ribbons on a pine tree near the entrance were from the state Department of Natural Resources.

A 1925 Milwaukee Journal story, “The Curse of Wisconsin Point,” described a visit to a litigation attorney in 1916 by an Ojibwe man. The attorney worked on the Indian land claim case against the steel corporation.

The Ojibwe man predicted that if the graveyard was disturbed, the resting place for his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, a mighty Chippewa chief, then fire and plague and war would break out. In the fall of 1918 men went to Wisconsin Point to move the graveyard, and noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance, today known as the Cloquet fire. That same year the flu broke out at epidemic levels. The country was mired in World War I. The “triple prophesy” came true.

Back in the truck we passed snow crusted pine along the still, narrow roadway. We reached the roadway end and hopped from the truck. Scout pointed out two homes owned by the Coast Guard, perhaps once the site of Frank Lemieux’s home. The Fond du Lac Band is in negotiations now to repurchase some acreage. If that deal goes through, the homes could be converted into cultural centers.

We walked along the breakwater leading to a lighthouse. The sun cast warming rays over the blue-white snow. From a distance came the sound of Duluth Interstate 35 traffic. The Scout’s frown deepened.

I told the Scout that my mother’s family’s name was Lemieux, and that I grew up with knowledge of a Great Aunt Maggie and a Great Uncle John and a Great Grandfather, Frank Lemieux. Thanks to an old newspaper clip, I also learned about a courageous Great Great Grandfather, Frank Lemieux.

The Scout pointed to the two white homes on Wisconsin Point, once occupied by the U.S. Coast Guard. Maybe they still are.

See those, he said. They’re probably yours. Take them back.

Deborah Locke can be reached at deborahlocke@fdlrez.com.